The 2021 Carabao Cup Final saw Manchester City take on Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley Stadium. The encounter saw both sets of fans filling an English stadium for the first time since the start of the pandemic, with a total of 7,773 fans able to view the match, but more than simply a return to normalcy, the Final marked a different objective for the two sides. 

For Manchester City, it was an opportunity to win their fourth straight EFL Cup and eighth overall and tack onto an impressive campaign that will almost certainly see them lift the Premier League title in the coming weeks. For Tottenham, it was a chance to salvage a broken season and put an end to their 13-year trophy drought.

One week prior to the Final, Spurs sacked José Mourinho -- the only manager to beat Pep Guardiola in a final -- and replaced him with 29-year-old Ryan Mason, who had seen his playing career cut short three years prior after fracturing his skull in a match against Chelsea. 

Having narrowly defeated Southampton in a midweek fixture, Mason made several changes to the team by dropping Tanguy Ndombele for Harry Winks and shifting from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3. Having previously missed out on the Southampton match due to an ankle injury, Harry Kane returned to the starting line-up in place of Gareth Bale, with Lucas Moura moving to the right side of attack.

Lineups for the match saw a shake up in the Tottenham midfield and a call up for captain Fernandinho alongside the retention of cup keeper Zack Steffen.

On the other side, Guardiola made several changes to keep the team fresh for the upcoming Champions League semifinal against Paris Saint-Germain at the Parc de Princes. Aymeric Laporte replaced John Stones in defense after the Englishman was sent off in a 2-1 victory against Aston Villa at the weekend, whilst Zack Steffen was given the start in goal over Ederson after previously starting in each of the team’s domestic cup matches. Guardiola opted to rest Rodri in the build-up to the PSG match, with 35-year-old captain Fernandinho slotting into the holding midfield position.

From the offset, it looked certain that City would dominate possession whilst Tottenham would look to sit back and hit on the counter. Not only did Guardiola’s side have 63% possession, they also racked up an impressive expected goal (xG) tally of 2.92 in comparison to Spurs’ miserly 0.04, as seen from the below figures from Wyscout.

Man City, as expected, dominated possession in the match with Spurs looking to play on the counter.

Man City’s Aggressive Pressing

Simply looking at possession and xG factors doesn’t quite do justice to City’s sheer dominance, though. They constantly maintained their territory in Tottenham’s half, preventing them from playing out from the back and starving Spurs’ two attacking stars -- Harry Kane and Heung-min Son -- of goal scoring opportunities. 

With Guardiola opting for a strikerless formation and Sergio Agüero and Gabriel Jesus remaining on the bench throughout the match, Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden played as a ‘double false 9, interchanging positions, roaming around the pitch and doggedly hassling Tottenham’s central defensive pairing of Eric Dier and Toby Alderweireld, often forcing them to play it back to Hugo Lloris in goal who would then have no other option but to boot it long. Their attempts to play it long and catch City’s high line off guard were futile, however, and Rúben Dias and Aymeric Laporte were able to win aerial duels and regain possession in Tottenham’s own half before recycling it further forward.

The Passer Allowed Per Defensive Action (PPDA) metric takes the number of passes allowed by the defensive team and divides it by the total number of defensive actions. A smaller PPDA value reflects an intenser press as the team is allowing fewer uncontested passes. 

We can see in the below data from Wyscout how Manchester City’s PPDA value of 9.4 and dwarfed by that of Tottenham (33.7), whilst City (81) have nearly double the amount of recoveries of Tottenham (42) and more than triple the amount of opposing half recoveries (37) than Spurs (12). Their central defenders were comfortable in dealing with long balls and preventing Son and Kane from receiving counter-attacking opportunities, winning 59% of aerial duels and 73% of defensive duels.

PPDA stats illustrate how Tottenham sat deep, waiting for City's attack to come to them. While conversely, City pressed high up the pitch when out of possession, not giving their opposition much time on the ball.
An overview of defensive stats from both sides.
Man CIty's midfield shape as they look to play out from the back. Note the dual pivot in the centre of the park.

Foden and De Bruyne led the press as a two-man attack, shrewdly shifting their positioning to ensure that Tottenham’s center backs were unable to progress the ball vertically and instead could only pass it backwards or horizontally. 

The aggressive pressing and intensity only goes so far to explain their dominance in Wembley; City’s rigid off-the-ball structure ensured that, even if they did succeed in evading De Bruyne and Foden, they would then have to elude two or more City players who followed in hot pursuit.

The Man City press in full effect here.

Three of Tottenham’s standout performers were Hugo Lloris, Toby Alderweireld and Eric Dier, with the central trio putting in massive displays to keep the score level throughout the first half. However, they too were incapable of finding a way past City’s nightmarish press. 

On one occasion early in the first half, Dier’s pass out from the back was intercepted by Mahrez who slid a pass in for De Bruyne, and when Alderweireld deflected the cross into Foden, he made up for his blushes by forcing Foden’s point-blank shot out for a corner.

City’s Attacking Blueprint

With Tottenham defending in a lopsided 4-3-3 formation, City set up in a 3-2-5 with Walker often joining Dias and Laporte in a makeshift back three whilst Cancelo and Gündoğan took turns swapping positions as the ‘left wing-back,’ and Riyad Mahrez and De Bruyne typically did the same on the right flank. 

Fernandinho and Gündoğan were able to navigate past Tottenham’s press with ease and pick out Mahrez, Foden, De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling in advanced positions.

With Dier and especially Alderweireld holding their own for the most part, City sought to target Spurs’ fullbacks in different ways. For Serge Aurier, they’d typically seek to catch him ball-watching with a pass in behind the Ivorian, whilst for Sergio Reguilón, they’d often put two players in close proximity with him (typically Mahrez and De Bruyne) in an attempt to confuse him with their link-up play and positional interchanges.

Player positioning graphic generated using Wyscout reporting data.

As City fatigued, they attempted more crosses and floated balls in behind the defense, but with no clear cut striker with a penchant for winning aerial duels, Tottenham dealt fairly comfortably with this threat. Guardiola attempted to work around this by moving Sterling in a more central role with De Bruyne able to receive in deeper areas and play crosses and lofted passes in behind, but City were unable to convert their vast array of half-chances.

The second half began as far more of an open affair than the first, but City were the only side that managed to threaten the opposing goal, and they came close again in the 73rd minute with Mahrez weaving his way past the defense and forcing Lloris into making another crucial save. However, Tottenham defended diligently and kept the score level, prompting Guardiola to bring on Rodri for Fernandinho in order to remove the threat of a second yellow and add an aerial presence in the box for set-pieces.

Before he could make his first substitution, however, City had broken the deadlock. Aurier brought down Sterling by the edge of the box, causing referee Paul Tierney to award City a free kick. De Bruyne floated the ball into the box and Laporte outmuscled Sissoko before firing the header past an outstretched Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and into the bottom right corner of the net.

Tottenham in Possession

In general, Tottenham played like a side that was frightened by the gap in individual quality and that was desperately attempting to force a penalty shootout from the start. This was evident from the fourth minute when Son collected a loose ball by the halfway line, but instead of turning around and trying to find a teammate with a short, horizontal pass, the South Korean forward launched a back pass to Alderweireld. 

The pass evaded the Belgian defender and found its way to Raheem Sterling, who elected to cut inside rather than pass it to De Bruyne, but he was wrestled off the ball by Serge Aurier before he was able to get a shot off.

Sterling breaks after capitalizing on Son's over cautious pass early in the match.

Once a Tottenham player managed to regain possession in his own half, he would be immediately pursued by one or two City players, with a box of four or six players typically staying in close proximity and diligently shifting to prevent Spurs from playing any short passing options. 

City weren’t just better than Tottenham; they were more dedicated and energetic, almost always being first to a loose ball and tirelessly searching for an opening goal. On the rare occasion that Spurs did manage to create any semblance of a counter-attacking opportunity, City slowed them down via a tactical foul; we saw this in the 17th minute as De Bruyne bodychecked Son whilst Kyle Walker shoved Giovanni Lo Celso to the ground, neither of whom were punished with a booking.

Kyle Walker and Gio Lo Celso clash during a defensive duel.

Tottenham’s first chance came shortly after, as they successfully played out of City’s press and found Aurier wide open on the right flank, but his cross was headed out for a corner kick by Rúben Dias. Their best spell came prior to halftime, and while they could only muster tepid crosses and searching long balls, they did come close to gaining a leg up on the opposition. 

Lucas Moura had intercepted a pass from De Bruyne and charged past three City players before being hacked to the ground by Aymeric Laporte, a tactical foul that was rather similar to Laporte’s earlier foul on Lucas just minutes prior, but the French defender was only booked on the second occasion. City made use of these tactical fouls throughout the match in order to stop Tottenham’s counters, with Fernandinho picking up a yellow after bringing down Pierre-Emile Højbjerg in the 59th minute.

Whilst the bulk of Tottenham’s attacks came through the center and right flank, with the latter making up 0.03 of their total 0.04 xG, Manchester City’s attackers were varied on both flanks and through the center, as seen in the below image from Wyscout.

Graphic from Wyscout match report displaying the favored attacking zone of each team.

Spurs came out of halftime eager to stamp their voice on proceedings, with Lo Celso forcing Steffen to make a diving save early on. However, Son’s resulting corner kick failed to find a man and City promptly took advantage with a counter-attack. 

It was an image that painted a stark contrast of the two sides’ mindsets; whereas City would have immediately collapsed on the ball carrier and sought to stop the counter in their own half, Lo Celso, Winks, Reguilón and Aurier retreated with their backs to the onrushing City players, allowing Sterling to progress the ball into the final third without a single Spurs player attempting to win the ball back from him.

Apart from the odd dribble from Lucas, Tottenham failed to muster a dangerous threat on the counter and punish City’s high line. This was in part due to the front three’s narrow positioning; with Lucas, Kane and Son seeking to prevent City’s double pivot and back three from progressing the ball further forward, Spurs players were unable to find their forwards in advanced areas on the rare occasion that they did win the ball back. 

Expected goals chart produced from Wyscout's match report.

Mason elected to make his first changes at the 67th minute, with Gareth Bale coming on for Lucas Moura -- Spurs’ liveliest attacker both on and off the ball -- whilst Moussa Sissoko replaced Giovanni Lo Celso. Bizarrely, Tanguy Ndombele, a player who had previously ripped City’s midfield to shreds during his time at Lyon and who would have surely been a useful asset against City’s aggressive press, did not even step onto the pitch during the final.

Following Laporte’s goal, Mason quickly reacted by bringing on Dele Alli for Højbjerg, but his fourth substitution -- Steven Bergwijn for Aurier -- came three minutes after Guardiola brought on Bernardo Silva for De Bruyne in an attempt to provide fresh legs in midfield. It was to little avail, however; City looked closer to doubling or tripling their lead than Spurs ever did to equalizing. As Tottenham huffed and puffed in the final minutes in an attempt to win the ball back, City’s players passed around them with the calm and serenity to suggest it was nothing more than a training session.


Tottenham fans can feel aggrieved by the goal scorer, who perhaps ought to have been sent off for his two cynical fouls on Lucas, but they cannot in any way feel cheated by the result. Despite resting several key players, Manchester City played Spurs off the pitch from start to finish and thoroughly deserved a victory with a more lopsided scoreline. 

City will now look to add to their trophy cabinet after claiming their third Premier League title in four years, with a Champions League Final against Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea on the horizonl. Spurs, on the other hand, will have to wait another year to end their growing trophy drought, having been eliminated in the FA Cup and Europa League by Everton and Dinamo Zagreb, respectively, and currently sitting five points behind Chelsea for the final Champions League spot.